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This is a comparative study of socialist and post-socialist political jokes in Romania that looks beyond the texts of the particular jokes in an endeavor of identifying not only joking patterns but also the way jokes are connected to the social, political and economic realities of their time. Central to my analysis are the different types of targets that political jokes aim toward during three distinct periods, namely the first decades of communist rule, the last decade of socialism and the post-socialist period.
The analysis shows a strong connection between the jokes and the social, political and economic realities of their time. Although they are funny stories, political jokes discuss very serious issues and their analysis represents a quite reliable picture of the way people felt and thought about political events and people that negatively impacted their lives.
While in socialist political jokes people made fun of the whole political system and contested its legitimacy, post-socialist political jokes have not contested the values of democracy and have targeted mainly political leaders whose authority people have questioned. Moreover, while socialist political jokes could have also non-political topics like sex and money, post-socialist political jokes represent just one type of topic jokes and not even the most appreciated one. There seems that, the more aspects of the society are politicised, the more creative are the political jokes.
Although the characters and the settings of the post-socialist political jokes change more often than those of the socialist political jokes, the targets of the political jokes of these periods are more continuous and focus on enduring political issues that affect people’s life like corruption, repression of freedoms and liberties, etc. It is not prominent leaders and events that generate political jokes, but rather those leaders and events that negatively impact people’s lives and create social tensions and frustrations.
Generally, this research shows that political jokes, although reduced in number, have not lost their appeal, and remain a means through which people discuss social changes and the way their lives are affected by these changes.
During socialism, a large amount of political jokes was produced and circulated in Eastern Europe in a manner that seems to have been unique. While political leaders and institutions have been targets of political jokes throughout history in all societies, the jokes o socialism made fun of an entire political, social and economic system.
Although publications and shows of humour existed during socialism, they were strictly controlled by the state and party apparatus and supported the official narrative. At the same time, the jokes studied here were produced and told by the ordinary people.
Political jokes were important for the people, who risked their liberty when sharing them, as well as for the authorities who chased the people who told and listened to them. Hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned for telling political jokes throughout the Socialist Bloc. There seems that the socialist leaders feared the power of the political jokes.
But socialist political jokes are even more important for another reason. They represented a counter-culture, an alternative to the official narrative of the socialist state. Jokes, and especially political jokes, can reveal the tensions in a society (Davies, 2010) and uncover a lot more to interested observer than any official data (Banc and Dundes, 1986; Cochran, 1989; Adams, 2005). Jokes can tell as much about humour as they can tell about the historical realities of the societies within which they circulate. Socialist political jokes exposed the failures of the socialist system and its lack of legitimacy better that many Western scholars’ theories (Davies, 2010). Their large number was a product of the extensiveness of political control (Davies, 2007) and the change of the political control has changed the extent of the post-socialist political jokes. Moreover, post-socialist political jokes seem to remain a good indicator of the continuities and discontinuities of the socialist values and institutions (Adams, 2005; Laineste, 2008; Davies, 2009a).
While internal political police and Western intelligence services used to collect socialist political jokes to gather information about people’s real views of the socialist regimes, scientific research of socialist political jokes was mainly limited to collections or focused on the jokes from the Soviet Union. Moreover, even fewer studies have been done about the post-socialist political jokes and no such study focused on Romania despite the fact that “Making fun of trouble” is a key expression that most Romanians use to describe themselves (Stan, 2011).
In the context outlined above, this thesis endeavours to answer the following research question:
What changes occurred in the political jokes within the transition from socialism to democracy?
Although the study of humour is an interdisciplinary enterprise, in order to answer the research question, a sociological perspective has been employed. From this perspective, political jokes represent a reflection of the social and political realities of their time. They emerge around points of social friction where a “dominant social discourse is already starting to give way to an emergent counter-discourse (Jenkins, 1992; 251).
This thesis looks at the socialist and post-socialist political jokes and analyzes them into their social context. Following the introduction, the first part of the thesis, Theoretical background, looks at previous research of political humour and jokes. After defining what jokes are, how they differ from other types of humour, the focus moves towards the theoretical approaches of political jokes with an emphasis of the sociological perspectives. The historical comparative approach to jokes and a brief account of the peculiarities of socialist and post-socialist political jokes provide then the basis for the next parts of the thesis.
The second part of the thesis, Political jokes in Romania, follows logically from the first and presents the research design that was implemented as well as the actual research of the socialist and post-socialist political jokes in Romania. It analyzes socialist and post-socialist jokes indicating their specific features and looking at the link between the social realities of these periods and the targets of political jokes.
The thesis ends with a series of conclusions drawn from the analysis in the previous chapter, and points out not only at the differences and similarities between the jokes of these periods, but also at the dependence of political jokes on the type of political regime and its social, political and economic realities. Moreover, the final part of the thesis provides also an outlook of possible further research.
Defining political jokes
Raskin (1985) defines a humour act as being an individual occurrence of a funny stimulus, which, more often than not, results in laughter. Although different people may not find the same things equally funny, humour and the reaction to it, laughter, are universal human traits (Raskin, 1985; Ziv, 1988).
Popular jokes represent only one form of humour that encompasses various other genres such as cabaret, revue, stand-up comedy, clowns, humorous talk shows, TV satire, sitcoms, cartoons, regular columns, tricks, masks (Kuipers, 2006). Unlike other genres and forms of humour, popular jokes are spontaneous and reflect ordinary people’s views. They are not only among the few independent items of modern popular culture (Davies, 2004), but are also probably the most widespread genre, enjoyed by people all over the world (Kuipers, 2002).
The jokes performed in the mass-media tell us generally what the writers, entertainers, broadcasters and owners of media have decided that can be published, and their decisions may be influenced by censorship or self-censorship. On the other hand, the popular jokes are a product of ordinary people’s imagination and are accurate indicators of their tastes and concerns (Davies, 2008). If one is interested in gaining an insight into the everyday life of two peoples, comparing their jokes is more revealing than comparing the writings of their most prominent humour writers.
A joke is a short funny story consisting of a setup and ending in a punch line (Martin, 2006). The setup includes the entire text except the last sentence, and is aimed, through an ordinary story or question, at creating in the listener a certain expectation regarding the way the situation is going to evolve. The punch line is actually the essence of the joke. It changes the meaning of the story created in the setup in an unexpected and playful way and generates an incongruity between the setup and punch line. Due to this combination of the setup and the punch line, the single text of a joke is compatible with two overlapping and opposed scripts (Raskin 1979).
Not all jokes have targets, but the jokes that are being discussed here are jokes with targets. Targets are the butt of a joke, on which the jokes attach mainly undesirable qualities. Political jokes could be targeted toward individuals and social groups whose social status is contested, toward institutions, policies and officially endorsed values and ideas, as well as toward entire political and social systems. Based on their target, there are two basic classes of political jokes: denigration jokes and exposure jokes (Raskin, 1985).
Because some political jokes tend to refer to particular events, people, slogans, etc. specific to a society or period of time, they could be unfunny for people that have not internalized the scripts to which the reference is made (Raskin, 1985). For example, the younger generations in Romania seem not to understand the jokes that circulated during socialism unless jokes are explained to them (Onut, 2006) because they lack understanding of the socialist realities.
Nevertheless, many political jokes are freely interchangeable and transmissible from one country to another and from one historical period to another. With slight variations, the following joke was collected in Romania in the late 1970s early 1980s (Banc and Dundes, 1986) and it was reported not only in other East European communist countries (Banc and Dundes, 1990), but also in Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, and Middle East (Oring, 2004). Moreover, its roots seem to be traced back to the work of a Persian poet in the 12th century (Omidsalar, 1987) or even in the 10/11th century in the Arab popular literature (Marzolph, 1998).
“A man is running down a Bucharest street. A friend stops him.
-Why are you running like this?
-Didn’t you hear? They have decided to shoot all camels.
-But, for heaven’s sake, you are not a camel.
-Yes, but these people shoot first, and then they realize you are not a camel.”
Interdisciplinary of humour studies
Humour is an interdisciplinary subject that has been approached from different perspectives. Raskin (2008, 3) states that “there are no full-time humour researchers in the world”, and research is done by scholars that approach this subject through the lenses of their own domain. A few of these perspectives are briefly discussed below although other disciplines have also shown interest in this topic.
Philosophers seem to have been the first to theoretically approach humour (Davies, 2009a). According to Thomas Hobbes, people feel superior to others when laughing at their weaknesses and misfortune. On the other hand, for Henry Bergson humour has a social control function because people tend to conform to the social rules of the community due to a fear of not being laughed at.
Social historians have looked at humour as part of their understanding of popular culture during different historical periods (Hart, 2007). For example, they have discussed about institutionalized opportunities for humour during the human history like the royal courts jesters and the societies of fools (Speier, 1998) or the carnivals as occasions when social hierarchy was disregarded and people could make fun of the authorities (Bakhtin, 1985; Wiese, 2010).
Linguists have extended their theories of syntactic analysis to humour research and constructed a methodology of analyzing the texts of short verbal jokes (Raskin, 1985; 2008). Moreover, they defined the one generalization that can be found in the entire literature of humour, namely that humour involves incongruity between the two or more scripts of the humorous text (Graeme 2004).
Sigmund Freud developed the first full-fledged theory of humour (Kuipers, 2008) and discussed the importance of social relationship in the analysis of humour. Nowadays, psychologists look at the perceptive and cognitive processes involved in humour in trying to describe, explain, predict and control humour behaviour (Ruch, 2008).
Anthropologists and folklorists have focused on identifying and explaining the variety of humour forms and expressions that occur across cultures and circumstances (Oring, 2008). They have been concerned with joking relations, ritual humour, jokes and joke cycles and the contexts of humour.
However, more recently, the main directions in the research of humour have been reduced to three: psychoanalytic, sociological and cognitive (Attardo 1994). In the context of this research, the sociological models have been considered in greater detail in order to create the theoretical framework within which the research has developed.
Sociological theories of political jokes
Humour is in essence a social phenomenon whose various forms of expression are shaped by social circumstances and shared in social interactions (Kuipers, 2008). It is also present throughout social conventions and cultural artefacts (Graeme, 2004). Nevertheless, sociology started to show interest in this social phenomenon only in the 1970s, when certain types of humour, especially that related to gender, ethnicity or political and social conflict, became problematic in the context created by the social and political developments of that period.
When talking about sociological approach to humour, a caveat needs to be made. Because social aspects of humour have been addressed by other scholarly disciplines too, sociologists have incorporated these views into their own understanding of the phenomenon. The three most prominent sociological theories of humour, with specific emphasis on political jokes, are addressed below in order to create the theoretical framework for the research of political jokes in Romania.
Political jokes as safety-valve
The functionalist approach analyzes the functions humour fulfils within a social group. From this perspective, humour contributes to the preservation of social order by allowing tension relief, social control and cohesion (Kuipers, 2004).
In line with the functionalist approach, political jokes tend to be considered a safety valve, a means to voice frustrations and aggressive emotions toward a political regime. Throughout history, jokes have been vents that enabled people to reduce their frustrations generated by social and political taboos, laws, and traditions (Speier, 1998).
Hillenbrand (1995) stated that political jokes provided Germans with a means of venting their grievances during the Nazi regime and had some therapeutic value for millions of people. Moreover, when analyzing socialist political jokes, Dundes (1987; 160) states that “The jokes provide a vent for emotions. Hypothetically, the more repressive the regime, the more jokes there will be about the regime.”
However, not only it is difficult to measure the catharsis effect of jokes, but also recent studies have emphasized that the multiple functions humour fulfils could contribute not only to the preservation but also to the destruction of social order (Palmer, 1994). Additionally, the various forms of humour could not only have different functions, but these functions could also vary according to specific social settings. Moreover, the analysis of the jokes themselves cannot denote their effect because the emotions they produce depend on the context and the tone of the joke telling (Davies, 2008).
Thus, functionalism has not been used as an overall analysis framework since 1970s, although sociologists have used separate elements of it combined with content and context analysis (Kuipers, 2008).
Political jokes as weapon
Unlike functionalism, conflict theories regard humour as an expression of social conflict and consider mainly those potentially offensive forms of humour like ethnic, sexist, or political humour (Lockyer and Pickering 2005).
While some authors state that jokes are a weapon used for aggressive and defensive purposes (Speier, 1998), others (Orwell and Angus, 1969; Adams, 2005) argue that jokes are tiny revolutions able to change political conditions. Orwell (Orwell and Angus, 2000; 284) states that “A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order.”
However, political jokes’ relationship with protest is not a simple one (Davies, 2007) and, while they may support confrontation, political jokes could also have opposite effects in different contexts (Lockyer and Pickering, 2005). Besides, not all conflict situations are reflected in humour and not all humour is related to conflict situations (Davies (1990, 1993, and 2002).
Moreover, during history, political jokes have had no revolutionary effects and have produced no political or social changes (Oring, 2004; Davies, 2011) because they are weak forces. The high number of political jokes in socialist Eastern Europe did not result in the collapse of the regimes (Davies, 2011), and neither were the whispered jokes of the Nazi regime correlated to a protest movement (Merziger, 2007).
While they are messages of opposition, political jokes are also a tacit recognition of defeat (Cochran, 1989). Although many people were telling political jokes during the Nazi regime, only few actually engaged in active resistance to Hitler (Hillenbrand, 1995). Also, the political jokes that circulated in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi Protectorate suggest ambiguity and uncertainty rather than political resistance and did not affect the regime in any way (Bryant, 2006).
Political jokes as indicators of social toxicity
The historical-comparative approach to humour tries to comprehend the social role of humour through comparisons in time and place. Despite the fact that this approach does not have a central theoretical model, and comparative studies of humour have been done in various fields, most sociological work on humour done in the last two decades is captured by this relatively vague umbrella (Kuipers, 2008).
Jokes can only be properly studied through comparisons and in relation to the social context where they are told (Davies, 2008). From these comparisons, one can learn as much about humour as about the social entities that are being compared (Davies, 1990b, 2010 and 2011). At the same time, in comparative studies, it is difficult and dangerous to make deductions from the analysis of one joke and, thus, joke cycles, consisting of a sizeable number of jokes with a common theme, need to be considered (Davies, 2011).
Comparisons across cultures have shown that, despite cultural and local variations, people all over the world tend to break the rules of permitted forms of speech and joke about social taboos like sex, ethnicity and politics. Besides the incongruity of the joke scripts, it is the breaking of these social prohibitions that makes humour possible (Lockyer and Pickering, 2005).
“Jokes play with the forbidden. The fabric of the unmentionables is briefly revealed. â€¦ Jokes are a brief time off from the everyday inhibitions and restrictions that bind the ways we speak.” (Davies, 2011; 3).
It is the relationship between the jokers and the targets of their jokes that is revealed through comparison, but for the comparative sociologists this relationship is not interpreted in terms of conflict but rather social status (Kuipers, 2008). Also, although people could use jokes under certain conditions to produce certain effects, most joke telling do not have purposes but are simply performances (Davies, 2008).
Although in some cases a related stereotype may exist, jokes cannot create stereotypes but most probably both, the jokes and the stereotypes, have a common root into particular social contexts (Davies, 2011). Moreover, jokes do not shape people’s behaviour in the way other communication forms like rhetoric or lies do. Jokes are social thermometers (Davies, 2011) or indicators of social toxicity (Onut, 2006).
Within the comparative approach, political jokes are considered a way of speaking about things that are otherwise unspeakable. When free expression of political opinions is suppressed, political jokes emerge as a means of criticism of political leadership (Dundes, 1987; Shehata, 1992). Political jokes may also flourish in periods of significant social changes characterized by popular lack of adjustment (Draitser, 2001). Moreover, the more areas of the society are dominated by a political regime, the more political jokes exist, because everything tends to be controlled and politicized (Davies; 2009).
There seem to be differences between the targets of political jokes in democratic and authoritarian regimes (Rose, 2001). Thus, political jokes in democracies tend to focus on individual politicians’ faults and peculiarities, whereas in authoritarian regimes jokes tend to focus on the whole political system and its representatives. While the first type of jokes does not question the legitimacy of the political system, the second does.
Political jokes in Eastern Europe
Socialist political jokes
The longest, largest and most widespread and creative corpus of political jokes circulated in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe (Davies, 2007). They were so present that people in a trusting relationship used to greet each other with the formula “Have you heard the latest joke” (Yurchak, 1997).
Political jokes have been shared by the people as early as the 1920s in the Soviet Union (Fitzpatrick, 2000), and from the mid 1940s could be found throughout all its satellites in the region. Socialist political jokes thrived better during milder repression than during terror when people feared being arrested, and flourished with similar energy in the 1970s and 1980s in countries with very repressive regimes like Romania and in more relaxed countries like Poland (Davies, 2011), which contradicts the theories of political jokes as safety valves and weapons.
Political jokes were important for the people, who risked their liberty when sharing them, as well as for the authorities who chased those who told and listened to them. Stalin alone seems to have imprisoned about 200,000 people for telling political jokes (Lewis, 2006). Moreover, numerous dossiers of people arrested for telling jokes have been found in the archives of the Hungarian secret police too (Lewis, 2006). In 1980s, the Balkan desk of the American Central Intelligence Agency collected about 15,000 communist jokes.
Although official approved humour existed in Eastern Europe during socialism, it tended to be in line with the regime’s narrative and did not touch the really important problems of the people. Official jokes tended to mock the little bureaucrats, shop keepers, etc., but never questioned the legitimacy of those powerful (Davies, 2009).
There have been political jokes in every political regime, but nowhere else they form such a consistent picture as under socialism where jokes about virtually any feature of life were jokes about socialism (Lewis, 2006). By knowing the jokes, one could know everything important during that period (Cochran, 1989), the values of the people who told them (Onut, 2006) and their political views (Davies, 1990).
Socialist political jokes were ridiculing not just the political leaders but the entire social and political system as well as its ideology, rituals and myths (Davies, 2008, 2009b, 2011). Jokes about the stupidity of political leaders were not only about them but about the stupidity of the entire system. Jokes about any facet of life and society, like sex, mothers-in-law, bureaucrats or ethnicity, were jokes about the socialism. These jokes could start with scripts that had nothing to do with politics and have the punch line scripts portray absurdities of socialism (Davies, 2009). Thus, jokes with different targets tended to cohere thematically (Cochran, 1989) and to aggregate into a single genre of political jokes (Davies, 2011).
Post-socialist political jokes
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christie Davies (1990) stated that because people in Eastern Europe gained their freedom of speech, political jokes as those told during socialism tended to vanish. He predicted that, while people continue to struggle for freedom, there would be little need for jokes. At the same time, if political jokes surfaced again, this could be a sign of failure.
While some studies of socialist jokes have been done during the last 20 years, there is limited research on post-socialist political jokes. The scope of current studies on jokes tends to be wider encompassing different types of jokes that circulate in post-socialist countries. Moreover, research tends to be restricted to those countries that gained their freedom of speech and made considerable developments toward democracy. Except Russia, and the Baltic States, there is virtually no research regarding the post-socialist political jokes in the other members of the former Soviet Union.
The different ways East European countries have transformed in the last two decades seems to be reflected by the post-socialist jokes. Success in transition toward democracy has been reflected in a reduced number of political jokes as well as a change in their targets from the overall political system towards political leaders (Laineste, 2009; Brzozowska, 2009)
Davies (2009) suggests that in post-socialist countries where freedom of expression persists or is re-imposed, political jokes thrive. The old socialist jokes may inspire new ones or could be re-cycled, especially where the new oligarchy’s members were already powerful during socialism. Moreover, the way the consequences of socialism affect the post-socialist developments of Eastern European countries is reflected in post-socialist jokes. They seem to remain a good indicator of the continuities and discontinuities of the socialist values and institutions (Adams, 2005; Laineste, 2008; Davies, 2009a).
Draitser (2001) discusses a specific type of jokes that have circulated in Russia since the collapse of the socialist regime, namely the jokes about the New Russians, the nouveaux riches who became rich quickly through questionable methods in a period of lack of rule of law and tended to show off their wealth in an offensive way.
Another type of joke resulting from problems left over from socialism is the jokes that emerged in Germany after the re-unification and contrasts East Germans (Ossi) and West Germans (Wessi). While the Ossis are represented as gauche and useless, the Wessis are depicted as arrogant.
After the fall of socialism, not all events seem to be inspiring political jokes, but only those that are “attractive, prominent, short and simple, yet striking, pointing at typical shortcomings, “greater” than just one event” (Laineste, 2008; 58).
Political jokes in Romania
Following from the review of the previous research on political jokes discussed above, this part describes the design of the current research.
Targets of political jokes are the people, groups of people and specific situations that are the butt of jokes, to which the joke ascribe an undesirable quality.
In order to identify the targets of socialist and post-socialist, I used Raskin’s (1985) typology of political jokes targets detailed below:
Denigrating a political figure
Incompetent and ignorant
Corrupt and immoral
Too humane, too soft, too liberal
Viewed in sexual terms
Being wished dead
Denigrating a political group or institution
Denigrating of a political idea or slogan
Exposure of national traits
Exposure of political expression
Exposure of shortages
Exposure of specific political situations
In direct connection with the targets of political jokes, another dependent variable is defined, namely the creativity of political jokes. Creativity of political jokes is defined as the difference between the topics of the two scripts of a political joke. Jokes whose first script describes a non-political topic while the punch line reveals a political one are considered more creative than jokes whose both scripts depict political topics or whose first script is political and the punch line is not.
This research looks at the dependent variables defined above during three separate periods of time: first decades of socialism, last decade of socialism and the period since the fall of the socialist regime in Romania.
Besides, for the post socialist period an independent variable has been employed, namely freedom of expression.
For the purpose of this research freedom of expression is defined as the freedom of press and is measured using the rating of Independent Media index of the Freedom House Nations in Transit index  .
H1. Socialist political jokes target the whole political order, while post-socialist political jokes target mainly the political leadership.
H2. Socialist political jokes had various topics, while post-socialist political jokes represent only one category of topic jokes.
H3. The targets of socialist political jokes had more continuity in time, while post-socialist political jokes change their targets more frequently.
H4. The political jokes of the first decades of socialism were less creative than those of the last period of socialism.
H5. The less freedom of expression, the more political jokes circulate (for the post-socialist jokes).
In order to verify my hypotheses and to answer the research question, both quantitative and qualitative analysis methods of the jokes have been employed. Firstly, I employed content analysis to identify the targets of socialist and post-socialist political jokes in Romania.
Secondly, using the typology of targets of political jokes described above, I used basic statistics to identify the relative focus of jokes on different types of targets. Finally, I analyzed the most relevant joke cycles with different targets within their political, social and economic context to determine whether or not and in what way there was a relation between the jokes and their context.
Universe of research
The jokes analyzed in this thesis came from three different sources, covering three different time periods:
Jokes that circulated in Romania between 1948 and 1975 and were collected by Banc and Dun
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